Socialism: A Journey, Not a Pre-determined Destination

An article by #MichaelWalzer (Dissent, Summer 2010) offers a clear and practical understanding “of the only #socialism we will ever know.” Striking off in a new direction, he purposely elides the distinction between “socialism” and “social democracy” while adopting a critical stance toward both. He rightly emphasizes the progressive nature of the goals of the latter – participatory democracy, regulated markets, and a universalistic welfare state – even though we need to be very critical of the actual practice of current social democratic parties in the West. Although many readers will feel that there must be more to it than that, Walzer advances the view that movements aimed at extending the three goals and defending existing achievements is actually what a practicable socialism is all about. I agree.

For Walzer, socialism/social democracy is more in the nature of a journey than a pre-determined destination. His approach is in contrast to the usual approach to socialism, in which implicitly or explicitly socialism is conceived abstractly as a certain integrated transformative model to be achieved. Whether conceived as participatory or market socialism, such abstract models can have a paralyzing effect. A reader might well want to live in the idealized society, but (s)he has no idea of how it might realistically be attained. The alternative approach is to remain steadfast in terms of ultimate values, but recognize that it is actually the practice of advancing and defending these values that constitutes socialism, or better socialism-in-the-making. In short, there is no end to the process, no “end of history.” There cannot be an end-point for various reasons, but one in particular: every system – and not just neoliberal capitalism – settles into inequality and domination because the rich and/or powerful use their wealth and power to entrench their budding privileges. Owing to this inevitable tendency in human societies, any progressive movement will, and must, periodically engage in insurgency. The willingness and capacity of ordinary people to defend and push forward their gains in democracy and equality through bottom-up #solidarity and action is the essence of socialism. It is part of what Polanyi understood as “the reality of society.”

Conceiving of socialism in this simple way turns the project into a realizable way of life and action. It requires work, unceasing work, but work that generates benefits not just to the collectivity but also to the individual activist. “The goodness,” in Walzer’s words, “is in the work as much as in the [societal] benefits – so it doesn’t matter if the work goes on and on, as it does. It is important and worthwhile work because of its mutuality, because of the talents and capacities it calls forth, and because of the moral value it embodies.” Participants gain a sense of efficacy and purpose.

Sometimes intellectuals spend too much time in arcane debates while the answer actually lies right before their eyes, in everyday practice.

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).